England v South Africa, 3rd npower Test, Edgbaston July 31, 2008

England's comfortable stagnation

Vaughan and his team-mates in the top six have no rivals, and no incentive to improve their performances


Paul Collingwood: another agonised exit for the most vulnerable England batsman since 2005 © Getty Images
 

After the horrors of Headingley, the first day at Edgbaston was meant to mark the start of England's grand revival. Instead, it might one day be recalled as the moment the rot within the dressing-room walls spilled out into full public view. On a blameless wicket at their favourite Test venue, and from a steady platform of 68 for 0, England produced a display of unmitigated ineptitude that must surely, this time, bring about the changes to the batting order that are so debilitatingly overdue.

Come to think of it, when was the last time there was a change to England's batting order? By that I don't mean cosmetic alterations such as a new combination of openers, or the introduction of a new face to cover for injury or illness. With the exception of Andrew Strauss' short-lived omission in Sri Lanka, and Paul Collingwood's one-match eviction at Headingley, the same familiar names have been trotted out in every single game since the start of the 2005 Ashes.

In fact, the last regular to be told "thanks but no thanks" was Graham Thorpe, after his 100th Test against Bangladesh in June 2005. He was put out to pasture to make way for Kevin Pietersen, while five Tests earlier in Cape Town, Mark Butcher - whose sated indifference was, in those days, viewed as the exception not the norm - suffered a convenient wrist injury that ushered in Ian Bell, via the short-lived option of Rob Key. Were it not for his personal problems, Marcus Trescothick would doubtless still be in situ at the top of England's order, but as it is, Alastair Cook has proved more than adequate as his understudy.

Their solidity of selection far outweighs their solidity at the crease. In 41 Tests since the start of the 2005 Ashes, England have used only ten different players in the top six (one of whom, Andrew Flintoff, is now slotting in at No. 7). Cook, the newest regular recruit, already has 32 appearances to his name, but Nos. 9 and 10 barely register on the radar. Owais Shah has managed two caps, 14 months apart, while Ravi Bopara kept Strauss' seat warm for three frantic Tests in December last year.

As if to intensify the feeling of them and us, England have handed debuts to nine bowlers and two wicketkeepers in the same period of time, of whom precisely two - Monty Panesar and Tim Ambrose - are playing in this game*. Test victories cannot be achieved without an attack that can take 20 wickets, but by common consent the Headingley debacle was entirely the fault of the batsmen, who allowed themselves to be bundled out in two sessions on the first day. It was a similar story during England's last Test defeat before that one, at Hamilton back in March, when the batsmen were routed for 110 in the fourth innings. And yet, perversely, the men who paid the price then were two bowlers, Matthew Hoggard and Steve Harmison.

One might have assumed that England, three summers on, would finally have moved on from 2005, but the stagnation in their top order implies otherwise. Instead of using that summer to build towards greater glories, the batsmen are hurtling headlong towards their fifth series defeat in subsequent 11 outings (having won eight out of 11 in 2003-05). Their only victories in that period have come against Pakistan, New Zealand (twice) and West Indies, who - coincidentally or otherwise - occupy the three slots above Bangladesh in the current ICC World Rankings.

Of course, the fault may not entirely lie with the men in possession. It could be that there is a genuine dearth of challengers working their way through county cricket, although the weight of runs that Bopara has amassed for Essex this season, and the form and confidence that Key and Shah both showed during the Twenty20 Cup final (a match comparable to Test cricket in terms of pressure if not the format) suggests that the distance at which they are kept from the Test side is more about protectionism than any lack of ability.

That suspicion was reinforced ten-fold at Edgbaston on Wednesday, when Collingwood's recall backfired spectacularly. His tortured 4 from 22 balls took his first-class season tally to 96 runs from ten innings (which is 260 fewer than the bowling allrounder he replaced, Stuart Broad) and dropped his Test average below the magical 40-mark that is constantly pointed to as spurious proof of the top six's worth. Moreover, it ruthlessly undermined not only his position in the side but that of his captain, Michael Vaughan. By declaring that Colly was "a good man to have in the dressing room", Vaughan unwittingly shed new light on the self-serving clique that is currently representing the national side.

 
 
In 41 Tests since the start of the 2005 Ashes, England have used only ten different players in the top six (one of whom, Andrew Flintoff, is now slotting in at No. 7)
 

What Vaughan seems to have forgotten is that Collingwood has always been a good man to have in the dressing room. That is precisely why he has been such an asset to the squad for the past seven years. In Vaughan's previous incarnation as captain, he didn't let such sentimental issues get in the way of the tough business of team selection. There was a period, from Collingwood's Test debut in Sri Lanka in 2003-04 to his Ashes recall 18 months later, when he was consistently and dispiritingly overlooked for every job opportunity going, yet remained in the squad precisely because he could be relied upon not to complain about his lot.

What exactly has changed between then and now, or more pertinently between Collingwood's omission at Headingley and his hasty and ill-starred recall for this Test? The answer probably lies in Vaughan's own insecurities. His initial scapegoat was Darren Pattinson, who has about as much chance of resuming his international career as Scott Muller after the "can't bowl, can't field" controversy. Now Collingwood is inching ever closer to his endgame, damned by Vaughan's insistence on retaining kindred spirits in the dressing room.

But how much longer can Vaughan himself survive on reputation alone, especially when he is in the sort of dreadful form that is currently undermining his status? Five years ago on this very ground, the England captaincy came his way when Nasser Hussain jacked in the job at the end of the final day. Hussain's rationale was that he had lost the dressing room to his younger team-mate, whose captaincy of the one-day side had produced precisely the spark that is lacking from England's current performances. Seeing as Collingwood is the current one-day captain, there's little prospect of history producing an exact replica, but Strauss and Flintoff are both former Test captains, while Pietersen and Cook are clear candidates for the future.

Even the best captains have a shelf life. As far as Vaughan is concerned, he believes he will remain fresh until after the 2009 Ashes, even though his knees are creaking so much he won't ever again risk his offspin, and his batting average this year - even allowing for his century at Lord's - is an unworthy 24.71. The chances of England ditching their captain with Australia looming seem non-existent, yet the treatment meted out to Butcher and Thorpe in 2005 shows how tough decisions can pay rich dividends.

For the time being, both Vaughan and Collingwood are being backed to the hilt - publicly at least - by the third most vulnerable man in the set-up, Peter Moores. But a third series defeat in six would ramp up the pressure on all three. "I think international cricketers are always under pressure to deliver," said Moores at the close of the first day. "That goes with the territory and it's part of the fun of the game."

But are England's batsmen really under pressure? With more money floating around the game than ever before, and no more than a smattering of pretenders lining up behind them, the feeling of cosiness grows with every passing debacle. Comfortable stagnation threatens to be the story of Vaughan's second coming as England captain. It would be an unworthy legacy for the country's most successful captain of all time.

* Non-batting debutants since 2005 - Shaun Udal, Liam Plunkett, Ian Blackwell, Monty Panesar, Sajid Mahmood, Jon Lewis, Matt Prior, Chris Tremlett, Stuart Broad, Tim Ambrose, Darren Pattinson

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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